Patting yourself on the back for keeping your home spick-and-span? Well, not to be a downer, but a new study argues that cleaning your home once a week is the equivalent of smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes per day.
That’s according to research published in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The study was conducted by scientists at Norway’s University of Bergen, who followed 6,000 people—professional housecleaners and regular homeowners alike—over a period of 20 years, testing their breathing capacity and having them fill out lengthy questionnaires.
“We found accelerated lung function decline in women both following occupational cleaning and cleaning at home,” wrote lead study author Øistein Svanes in the commentary. More damage was found among women working as professional cleaners, but even those who merely cleaned their own homes once a week demonstrated lung damage that would be equivalent to that caused by smoking about 20 cigarettes per day.
So is this the best (albeit scariest) excuse ever to never clean your house again?
How dangerous are housecleaning chemicals, really?
Before you don that hazmat suit and dump all your cleaning products in the nearest hazardous waste bin, experts say not to panic. As Bill Carroll, a professor of chemistry at Indiana University points out, “This is not a study of specific materials, so any supposition about exposure to any specific material is just that—a supposition.”
But he adds a caveat: “It’s important to use any cleaning material—particularly bleach or ammonia—with appropriate ventilation, and never ever ever mixed together.”
Janet Newman, a health and wellness expert and author of Living in the Chemical Age, explains: “If products containing bleach and ammonia are combined, it creates chloramine gas, and these toxic fumes can be fatal. Inhalation without adequate ventilation can be corrosive to the lungs and can cause respiratory failure.”
Hazards beyond ammonia and bleach
“The traditional practice of cleaning uses chemicals with very strong levels of synthetic fragrance—in fact, there’s still a perception that ‘clean’ should smell like these strong scents,” says Earth Friendly Products CEO Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks. “We now know that what we are inhaling when we smell strong synthetic fragrance are actually volatile organic compounds. These VOCs are often allergens and can even be neurotoxins or carcinogens.”
Newman backs that up: “Fragrances are used to scent a variety of cleaning products, including dish soap, laundry detergent, carpet cleaner, dryer sheets, and air fresheners, to name a few. Consumers need to know that the word ‘fragrance’ is a catch-all term.”
In other words: When a list of ingredients says the word “fragrance,” it could mean any number of potentially harmful chemicals.
Newman also adds that one of the most dangerous common fragrance ingredients is styrene: “Styrene has been deemed ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ by the National Toxicology Program. It has also been known to be toxic to the liver and central nervous system.”
Other substances to watch out for include benzophenone (an endocrine disruptor that is linked to liver tumors) and acetaldehyde, another chemical that has been deemed potentially carcinogenic to humans.
How to check cleaning products for hazardous substances
It’s tricky. While some cleaning products will list their ingredients on the bottle, some might not—or give only the vaguest clue about what’s in there (like “fragrance”).
The reason: According to the EPA’s list of Safer Chemical Ingredients, “Unlike food products, manufacturers of chemical products are not required to list ingredients on their containers or make them public.”
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true—if a product is not intended to be ingested, manufacturers are not required to tell you which ingredients their products contain.
Still, you don’t have to suffer in ignorance.The EPA has created a designation that specifically helps consumers identify products with safer ingredients. You can find a list of ingredients the EPA considers safe, and not so safe, on the organization’s safer ingredients web page.
You can identify products that use these safer ingredients by looking for the blue and green “Safer Choice” label. You can find them in local stores, as well as online.
Another option is to just make your own safe cleaning products at home. You’d be surprised at how much you can do with common household items like baking soda—from neutralizing carpet smells to polishing windows. Here’s more advice on how to make homemade cleaners.
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